Leading article: A tour de force from a leader with awkward months ahead

Share

Tony Blair's final conference speech as Labour's leader was a memorable tour de force delivered in the most extraordinary circumstances. Earlier this month, sections of his party had forced Mr Blair to declare publicly that this would be his last conference. As a result, this could have been a tense and brittle speech from a leader who was going earlier than he had planned, but was not going quite yet. Instead, Mr Blair managed to make an address that was both valedictory and yet conveyed a sense that his job was not yet done.

In tone, Mr Blair showed again that he is the best speaker of his generation. He addressed his famously tempestuous relationship with Gordon Brown by deploying humour and praise for the co-architect of New Labour. And while some of Mr Brown's critics will no doubt use Mr Blair's performance to draw unfavourable comparisons between the two, this would be invidious - given the Prime Minister's relative freedom, and the constraints under which Mr Brown had to speak.

Mr Blair adopted a jocular tone, too, in speaking about his own complicated relationship with his party and the voters. But in a significant passage he expressed his determination to help Labour secure a fourth term, describing it as the only legacy he cared about. After this speech it will be harder for the Conservatives to de-couple Mr Blair from the Labour Party.

There were messages, as well, for his own party, about the dangers of lapsing into a comfort zone and failing to meet new challenges. It is one of Mr Blair's strengths to look ahead without sentimentality. But he listed also an impressive array of achievements since Labour came to power. From low unemployment, a minimum wage, increased investment in public services and some historic constitutional changes Mr Blair argued convincingly that Britain is in a better place than it was in 1997. He was right, also, to warn that reform of public services must not end when he leaves Downing Street.

The foreign policy section of the speech was less convincing. Once more he advanced his case by simplistically linking the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, two very different conflicts. Indeed the justified removal of the Taliban was disastrously undermined by the conflict in Iraq. In addition he put the case for Britain being the strongest ally of the United States without subtlety or nuance. A single speech cannot wipe out the calamitous mistakes Mr Blair has made since he resolved long ago to form a close friendship with President Bush.

Nor can a single address wipe out the awkward context in which it was delivered. Labour faces a highly charged few months in which the probable next leader, Mr Brown, will be under sustained scrutiny. Meanwhile the government functions in an unusually contorted way. The Prime Minister will present the next legislative programme, although he will not be in power when the parliamentary session ends. Mr Blair also said he would focus in coming months on one of his most persistently admirable objectives, re-establishing the Middle East peace process. He is a skilled and experienced negotiator, but such a demanding task seems peculiarly ambitious as the clock on his leadership ticks away.

In spite of these reservations, the speech was a reminder of why Mr Blair has been such a formidable leader. He is able to deliver meticulously prepared speeches in a way that is conversational, good humoured and yet rich in policy content. There is nearly always a compelling narrative momentum. In this case, the narrative was more personal, but also suggested that, despite all the tensions at the top of the Government, he and those around him are still hungry for Labour to win again. Mr Blair's last speech to Labour's conference was his best.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Move from Audit to Advisory

£45000 per annum + benefits: Pro-Recruitment Group: Move from Audit to Advisor...

Management Consultancy - Operational Research Analysts

£35000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus + Benefits: Pro-Recruitment Group: You must ...

Secondary Teaching Assistant

£60 - £70 per day: AER Teachers: THE SCHOOL: This outstanding Secondary School...

Application Support Analyst (MS SQL, java based webserver, batch scripting)

£36000 - £40000 Per Annum On call allowance.: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor’s Letter: Britain's sexism

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

Nigel Farage: I’m taking on the status quo, and the Establishment’s fighting back

Nigel Farage
Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
The pain of IVF

The pain of IVF

As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal
Supersize art

Is big better? Britain's latest super-sized art

The Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
James Dean: Back on the big screen

James Dean: Back on the big screen

As 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star perfected his moody act
Catch-22: How the cult classic was adapted for the stage

How a cult classic was adapted for the stage

More than half a century after it was published 'Catch-22' will make its British stage debut next week
10 best activity books for children

10 best activity books for children

Keep little ones busy this bank holiday with one of these creative, educational and fun books
Arsenal 3 West Ham United 1: Five things we learnt from the battle between the London sides

Five things we learnt from Arsenal's win over West Ham

Arsenal still in driving seat for Champions League spot and Carroll can make late charge into England’s World Cup squad
Copa del Rey final: Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right

Pete Jenson on the Copa del Rey final

Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right
Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

With the tennis circus now rolling on to the slowest surface, Paul Newman highlights who'll be making the headlines – and why
Exclusive: NHS faces financial disaster in 2015 as politicians urged to find radical solution

NHS faces financial disaster in 2015

Politicians urged to find radical solution
Ukraine crisis: How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?

Ukraine crisis

How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

A history of the First World War in 100 moments
Fires could turn Amazon rainforest into a desert as human activity and climate change threaten ‘lungs of the world’, says study

New threat to the Amazon rainforest:

Fires that scorch the ‘lungs of the Earth’
Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City: And the winner of this season’s Premier League title will be...

Who’s in box seat now? The winner of the title will be ...

Who is in best shape to take the Premier League prize?